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Monday, February 27, 2006

Hypocrisy and Death Penalties

Here's a piece I wrote for The Australian a couple of years back on the intellectual dishonesty of both Australia's and Britain's political elites to the issue of capital punishment. With the news emerging of the Iraqi government's death squads, the hypocrisy is still there for all to see.

Neil Clark supports capital punishment, but can't fathom how John Howard and Tony Blair can endorse summary justice in Indonsia and Iraq

THE AUSTRALIAN August 11th 2003

Recent events have highlighted the intellectual inconsistency of both Australia's and Britain's political elites to the issue of capital punishment. Not so long ago, we heard Foreign Minister Alexander Downer speak of Australia’s ‘universal and consistent opposition to capital punishment’, as he intervened to prevent Sydney woman Le My Linh being executed in Thailand for drug trafficking. A few months later, as Prime Minister John Howard hails as ‘appropriate’ the death sentence passed by an Indonesian court on the Bali bomber Amrozi., it is apparent just how ‘universal and consistent’ Australia’s opposition really is.

In Britain meanwhile, Tony Blair’s thought processes appear even more disturbed. As befits a lawyer with impeccable liberal-left credentials, Blair has never made any secret of his opposition to the ‘barbarism’ of capital punishment. The British Prime Minister has a problem with executing people after they have been found guilty of a capital offence in a court of law. But having taken his country into five military conflicts in six years, it is clear that he has no problem with state-ordered killing per se. For Blair, the recent deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein was ‘great news’. Yet if he thinks Saddam’s brutish sons deserved to die (even though they had not been convicted of murder in a court of law) why then doesn’t he believe that Dr Harold Shipman, the convicted English serial killer, who murdered over 200 of his trusting, unsuspecting patients, deserves to meet his maker too ?

Blair’s squeamishness over state-sponsored executions mysteriously vanishes when it comes to supporting the U.S. in their assassination attempts on world leaders who stand in their way. Back in 1999 NATO launched a cruise missile attack on the Belgrade villa of Yugoslavia’s President Milosevic, based on intelligence reports that he was at home. Similar attempts were made on the lives of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan two years later. At present, US and British forces are engaged in a man hunt for Saddam Hussein- and don’t seem too concerned whether they take him dead or alive. In the words of Paul Bremer, the US supremo in Iraq, ‘the sooner we kill him or capture him the better’. From a US administration that accepts the state’s right to take life, such a policy, cannot be said to be contradictory. But for an anti-hanging British Prime Minister to support it so enthusiastically surely is.

Unlike Tony Blair, I have a problem with summary execution, but none with capital punishment when, in a rule of law, due process democracy, a murderer has been found guilty after a fair trial. Leaving aside arguments of deterrence, the main moral argument for the death penalty is that murder, being such a terrible and unique crime, warrants a unique punishment. Any other punishment, devalues the crime and simply does not give the victim the respect that he/she deserves. The state should execute a murderer not because it holds life in low regard, but precisely because it holds the lives of those that the murderer dispatched in such high regard. Capital punishment is pro and not anti-life. The sentence passed in Indonesia on Amrozi was therefore a just one. Whether his execution will turn him into a martyr is a matter for debate. But it is right and just a man found guilty of prematurely ending the lives of 202 people should himself pay the ultimate penalty.

Although convinced of the moral case for capital punishment, I can however fully respect the arguments of those, who from a pacifist viewpoint argue that it always wrong for the state to take life, in whatever circumstances. But this is not the position that Tony Blair and most opponents of the death penalty argue from. Recent events show us is that it is the supporters of the death penalty who are the true upholders of due process, and not decidedly non-pacifistic anti-hangers like Tony Blair, who would shoot first and ask questions afterwards. What the British Prime Minister seems to believe in is a very crude form of summary justice which may very well belong in the OK Coral, but surely not to a 21st Century democracy. With their contradictory stances on capital punishment both Blair and John Howard have much explaining to do. Could the British Prime Minister kindly tell us why he endorsed the dropping of four 2,000lbs bombs on a Baghdad restaurant where Saddam Hussein was thought to be dining- but why he would not support the execution of the ex-Iraqi leader if he were found guilty of capital crimes in a court of law ? And could John Howard please explain why Australian murderers should not be executed for killing Australian citizens but Indonesians should be ?

Copyright Neil Clark/The Australian 2003
All Rights Reserved

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